On a residential street in Quito, Ecuador, one home has been transformed into a refuge. Red and pink flowers liven the front yard of Dialogo Diverso, a community organization providing LGBTQ migrants and refugees with free drop-in counseling, workshops on topics ranging from employment to LGBTQ rights, and referral services to other agencies. Milo, the resident dog, wags his tail and welcomes visitors. Inside, a traditional pride flag brings a pop of color to the minimalist, all-white space. Since it opened last November, Dialogo Diverso has helped over 300 LGBTQ Venezuelan migrants.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, over 9 million people have been affected by the current economic and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. Of those, 3.7 million have fled the country. Neighboring countries such as Ecuador have been overwhelmed by the increase in migration. Approximately 350,000 Venezuelans are registered in Ecuador (the actual number is estimated to be much higher), and that figure is expected rise to over 500,000 by the end of 2019, according to UNHCR.
There is no data. There are no numbers. There is no information on how difficult it is to be LGBTQ and a migrant at the same time.
Activists say LGBTQ individuals have been particularly marginalized during the crisis. “There is no data. There are no numbers. There is no information on how difficult it is to be LGBTQ and a migrant at the same time. It is one thing to be a migrant. If you’re queer and a migrant and you have AIDS, it’s very complicated,” says Danilo Manzano, Dialogo Diverso’s director. Due to the lack of data available, the center collects information on its beneficiaries, which is used both to refer them to appropriate services, and help lobby for additional support for LGBTQ migrants and refugees.
“LGBTQ migrants need a safe space,” he says. And that’s what he has created. Danilo scraped together funds to create this inclusive space. The entire organization used to operate out of the home’s kitchen, until he received funds to renovate other parts of the house, which are now used for programming. It’s the only official space in Quito where LGBTQ migrants and refguees can make friends in a similar position and build community. On Fridays, people visit the center to discuss their problems and possible solutions.
Dialogo Diverso trains agencies to support LGBTQ migrants. “These organizations don’t have experience in dealing with LGBTQ people. They may discriminate unintentionally through their vocabulary,” Danilo says.
Bruno Martinez*, 21, a Venezuelan human rights and LGBTQ activist and professional stylist heard about Dialogo Diverso through word of mouth. It has provided a small light in his otherwise traumatic journey.
“It has been really tough,” Bruno says about his time in Ecuador. “I thought I would find a place of peace and security and it’s been the exact opposite.”
Like most Venezuelans, Bruno fled due to the economic crisis, but he also had an additional reason. As an activist, he was vocal about LGBTQ rights and being anti-government. As a result, Bruno says he was threatened by the Venezuelan army.
“Everyone in Venezuela is starving,” he explains, “but if I didn’t leave, I would have died.”
Bruno — the breadwinner for his family — fled Venezuela alone, leaving behind his mother and four siblings. He first went to Colombia where he worked odd jobs to earn enough money to continue the journey to Ecuador, hoping to find a better life.
His journey was harrowing. At Tulcan, on Ecuador’s border with Colombia, Bruno was sexually assaulted and worried that he may have contracted HIV as a result. He tested negative.
When Bruno reached Quito, he stayed at a shelter for Venezuelan migrants, where he was happy to have a bed and three meals a day. As he was settling in, he once again was subjected to violence. A staff member at the shelter asked Bruno for sexual favors. In addition, he was sexually assaulted by two other men at the shelter who also threatened to physically assault him.
Bruno found himself fleeing once again in fear of his life. A project coordinator from CARE put him in touch with UNHCR who temporarily put him up in a hotel and covered his meals for a few days until he got on his feet.
“If it wasn’t for CARE, UNHCR, and IOM, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. Bruno denounced the shelter and the sexual abuse he experienced there. Although he has boldly maintained his activism, he worries that the men who assaulted him will track him down. He says the anxiety and insecurity he felt in Venezuela has not gone away. “I didn’t expect to have the same fears here.”
Venezuelans registered in Ecuador
When possible, Bruno keeps in touch with his family in Venezuela, but it has been increasingly challenging amid the power outages. “My mom says she is fine but I know she is not. A mother cannot tell her son she isn’t well, and I do the same,” Bruno says. He has not shared with his family the multiple assaults he has experienced since leaving Venezuela, or that he is depressed. “Even on days when I’m lying down on the ground, I tell her I am OK.”
As with so many other LGBTQ migrants, Bruno is uncertain about where he will permanently settle, how he will survive, and if he will be accepted for who he is. “Life is a big desert for me now,” he says. “I look out and I just see a desert.”
Through various survival jobs, Bruno has faced xenophobia, homophobia, and exploitation. Danilo says this is far too common among LGBTQ migrants and refugees.
“We have an amazing law, but the reality is completely different,” Danilo explains.
In Ecuador, LGBTQ people are protected against violence through a special law that outlaws hate crimes, including those committed on the basis of sexuality. A 2016 study by several human rights organizations in Ecuador found that these domestic laws on equality and non-discrimination based on sexuality, were not being enforced. Although a range of organizations serve migrants at large, LGBTQ migrants are overlooked, Danilo says, which is why he’s determined to continue this work.
“For us, it was very important to show organizations that we are here and need special support.”
*Name has been changed